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March-April 2010: David Reynolds

David Reynolds
Professor of International History, University of Cambridge

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

As early as I can remember, during my childhood in Kent. My parents both left school at fourteen, so they were never trained historians, but they did have a deep love of the country and a reverent fascination for its history. My mother, a Lancastrian who married a Southerner, used to take me to London to visit historic buildings and watch state occasions. I can remember seeing President de Gaulle and Queen Elizabeth progressing up the Mall in 1960 and I once glimpsed an ageing Churchill being driven into the House of Commons.

So my earliest interest in history was instinctive and probably rather Romantic, yet there was also a darker side. My father had served in World War Two (North Africa and Italy) yet, like so many veterans, he rarely talked about it to his family. It doesn’t surprise me in retrospect that 1939-45 has been at the centre of my historical research.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

The first significant influence was through teachers at Dulwich College in southeast London. In those days, neighbouring local education authorities offered competitive scholarships to ‘public’ schools such as Dulwich. I was one of the lucky ones. Otherwise, I doubt that my parents would have been able to pay the fees. Dulwich opened me up to the delights of drama, a range of sports and, above all, to serious history. E.N. (‘Taffy’) Williams was the head of history. A shrewd, understated little man who wrote an excellent textbook on eighteenth-century Europe, it was he who urged me to apply to Cambridge. Mark Whittaker and David King were also, in very different ways, gifted teachers (David went on to a post at Lancaster University and, in a pleasant turn of the wheel of time, his son recently took my Special Subject course).

At Cambridge my Director of Studies was Neil McKendrick at Caius College. As an undergraduate, it’s interesting to reflect, I worked mostly on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century history – British and continental. The two supervisors who had the most impact on me were Quentin Skinner, who introduced me to intellectual history and to rigorous argument, and Jonathan Steinberg, who taught US history with an eye on the similarities and contrasts with Britain. It was Jonathan who prodded me to apply for a graduate scholarship to Harvard. This proved a life-changing experience – among other things turning me into a modernist, intent on setting the British experience in international perspective.

Recognition of what I owe my teachers – both through academic training and personal advice – has become more and more evident to me over time. It has sharpened my own sense of the responsibilities and pleasures of teaching.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

Heaven knows! Leaving aside enduring fantasies about playing cricket for England, there really isn’t much else I could have done. Most weeks (even when ground down by form-filling and committees) I still give thanks for being a historian in one of the most beautiful cities in Britain. The combination of research, writing and teaching is something I particularly enjoy. I have known scholars in America, Germany and Russia who are based in research institutes: on the face of it, they have more time for their own work but I strongly believe they lose the stimulus of teaching bright undergraduates and the privilege of helping graduates make their entry into the profession. Both these tasks are time-consuming but each has profoundly enriched my research, writing and friendships.

4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

Hard to say. Each of them was deeply absorbing at the time. Some of my books have grown directly out teaching – Britannia Overruled (1991) for instance, on 20th-century British foreign policy, or One World Divisible: A Global History since 1945 (2000). When Paul Kennedy, out of the blue, invited me to write that book, the idea seemed to me impossible but enormous fun. I was able to undertake it because of the foundation of having taught a course on 20th-century international relations.

Yet the books based on archives are probably the ones that matter most to me. The Creation of the Anglo-American Alliance, 1937-1941 (1981), involving multi-archival research on both sides of the Atlantic, grew out of my doctoral thesis. Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain, 1942-1945 (1995) entailed a similar archival odyssey but was a very different mix of governmental and socio-cultural history. This book had a long gestation period and was, conceptually, much the better for it: fortunately this was before the days of the Research Harassment (sorry – Assessment) Exercise.

I also enjoyed putting together a collection of some of my articles, essays and conferences – From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt and the International History of the 1940s (2006). It was interesting to see how my ideas had developed, not least on the place of cultural history within the history of international relations. I printed the pieces as originally published, apart from eliminating repetition and correcting some errors of fact, but I also tried to indicate how scholarship has moved on in the interim. It seemed to me important to acknowledge the historicity of what I had written.

The biggest intellectual challenge so far has been In Command of History (2004), about Churchill’s memoirs of World War Two. The research, though vast, was relatively simple: mostly in the Churchill archives just fifteen minutes from home. But constructing a book that interwove the events of World War Two with Churchill’s life after 1945 was a wonderful challenge, plus developing a methodology for understanding memoirs as texts. Here I found myself coming back to what I had learnt as an undergraduate with Quentin Skinner – a reminder that in our profession nothing is lost. What has made you as a person and as a scholar can enrich your work decades later.

5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

To be more and more international in its frame of reference. Just as ‘British’ and ‘Atlantic’ history have given a new meaning to ‘English’ history, so I expect we shall see more comparisons with the continental experience – as has happened, for instance, in studies of the British Empire. Secondly, the ‘gender’ revolution has only just begun. I don’t believe ‘gender’ to be a decisive factor in every historical case – the approach needs to be used as a tool not a panacea – but gender is often a missing dimension, long overdue for analysis even in the apparently ‘male’ world of international relations, as show by recent studies of diplomatic language and of ‘peace’ lobbies.

6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

The ‘interest’ must start with you. Research and writing are pretty solitary occupations: if you are not personally engaged by the project, then you’re unlikely to carry it off. Of course, your initial fervour will cool in time – research projects, unlike undergraduate essays, take years not weeks and the work will at times seem rather routine – but a basic passion, rekindled by seminars, conferences and casual chats, is essential to carry you through.

Topics generally grow out of your previous work and interests, informed by advice by an appropriate supervisor. Finding a person whose scholarship you admire and with whom you can work is particularly important for a graduate student. Within the topic, you need to examine the existing historiography and identity possible gaps in content, argument or method. Also decide whether those gaps are really worth filling. The crux, especially for PhDs, is whether your work can be deemed a significant and original contribution to scholarship in the field.

In order to publish, you have to write. An obvious point, of course, but many graduate students (and some academics) find the research absorbing but shy away from the writing. I believe it essential to get writing early: that way you start to glimpse the finished product, which avoids doing research that won’t be used and also opens your mind to unsuspected new avenues. The motto, in short, is: Don’t think ‘research’, think ‘thesis’. (You can substitute ‘book’ for ‘thesis’). Writing will never be easy – much of the pleasure lies in the pain – but the sooner you move beyond the blank page or the blank screen, the sooner your grand ideas will get into print and shape history!

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